Saturday, December 6, 2014

A Long Time Coming

They say good things come to those who wait and my goodness were we made to wait for it. 22 games against the Southern Hemisphere’s top three without the sweet taste of victory; the equivalent to a whole Pro 12 season of defeats. At times victories have flowed like wine – Triple Crowns, Grand Slams and even Twickenham victories – but SANZA scalps have been more rare than a Welsh rugby story in the national press.
 
Two victories and a draw against Australia is the only return they’ve had from them since the turn of the millennium; the last of those was six years ago. Wales had come close so many times only to fall short. There were more bridesmaids than a whole series of ‘My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding,’ but precious little in the way of brides. Last week it all changed. The wait came to end and Wales finally downed a southern hemisphere giant, beating South Africa for only the second time in their history.
 
It is true that Wales didn’t play as well as they did against the All Blacks or Australia, but after too many years of being heroic losers, just winning feels great. Though, even not performing to the best of their ability, they were the better team on the day. They have been a better team for most of the autumn.
 
 
This autumn Dan Biggar has been the star of Oscar winning standard, but Saturday he became Best Director. He manoeuvred players, dictated play and spoke with authority to his charges. His talent has previously come undone by youthful overconfidence that could have been misconstrued as arrogance or, sometimes, ambivalence. Over the past year or so he has matured fantastically and no such complaints can be levelled at him now. On Saturday, his directing would have had Steven Spielberg cooing.
 
When Biggar took the shirt the feeling was that he was there simply as a stop gap, keeping the jersey warm for whomever would eventually fill it long term. However, after this autumn, the WRU should consider getting the 10 jersey tailor made for Biggar because it’s difficult seeing the future lying anywhere else.
 
Outside him, Jamie Roberts had one of his best series in a Wales jersey. The Parisian lifestyle seems to suit Roberts and his Vespa, but now it may be rubbing off on the pitch too. The Racing Metro centre carried fearlessly and tackled ferociously in all of the games against “the big three.” Faced with Christian Leali’ifano, Jean de Villiers and Sonny Bill Williams, Roberts got the better of them all this autumn.
 
 
The other side of Dan Biggar was Rhys Webb. Where Wales have spent previous years trying to use the size and strength of Mike Phillips to wear teams down, Webb has been a willo the wisp around the set piece. His passing has been quick and precise, whilst his willingness to snipe around the breakdown means defences can’t switch off for a nano second.
 
Tries against Australia and New Zealand were almost followed up with one against South Africa, which would have really capped an extraordinary autumn for the Ospreys nine. The argument for Mike Phillips has always been that he is an extra flanker, but with Lydiate and Warburton playing as they have this autumn, who needs one?
 
Warburton barely put a foot wrong and - like Roberts – proved himself able to walk among the finest the world has to offer in his position. Warburton carried and tackled excellently as well as becoming one of the nations finest lineout options. However, it is at the breakdown that most modern day opensides will be judged and Warburton is an exemplary operator at the ruck. Virtually immovable when protecting the ball and fights for the opposition’s possession like a ferret in a rabbit hole.
 
 
In front of Captain Sam the work in the boiler house was tremendous. The work rate and ability of Alun Wyn Jones has long been acknowledged but who should partner him in the second row has been a difficult one. Evans, Davies and Charteris have been sufficient answers in the past, but Jake Ball has pushed expectation even higher with a tough gritty performance.
 
In the front row, Ball’s Scarlets teammate, Samson Lee showed more than incredible maturity to stamp his authority on the scrums and helped debunk the myth of the scrum time lottery. Lee played more minutes than any other prop for any nation this autumn, he gave away no penalties any game. He was just a reliable around the park as he was packing down and on Saturday he tamed The Beast.
 
Warren Gatland created plenty of controversy when he left Adam Jones out of his squad, but it was a shrewd move that worked fantastically. Samson Lee proved he is good enough for the international scene whilst Adam Jones looks fitter, fresher and competitive.
 
It’s hard to remember an autumn that was exited with such excitement and promise from a Welsh perspective. Important players are peaking at the right time and a new game plan seemed to be coming together.
 
 
Sure, the lineout stuttered like Arkwright in Open All Hours and the Fiji game was diabolical. However, this autumn must be seen as a success. Some will say that Wales’ victory is diminished by the number of players unavailable to the Springboks. Lets not underestimate how good a South Africa side this was. Of the starting XV that beat the All Blacks in the Rugby Championship this year, 13 played a part against Wales.
 
Sure the quality of the rugby played wasn’t great and the tension was ramped up to nausea inducing and hand quivering levels watching. Wales were the better team on the day, but even if we weren’t we ground out a win. Isn’t that what we continue to laud the All Blacks for?
 
It won’t please the perpetually pessimistic doom-mongers of Welsh rugby who hang around social media like virtual Droopy Ds, but let's just stop the moaning and enjoy the win. It’s been a long time coming.
 
***This video may not appear for some smartphone users. To watch, press the title to open in a new window in your browser.***

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

A Bad Habit

“We are what we repeatedly doExcellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit”
 
If rugby matches were an hour long Wales would be among the best. If rugby matches were an hour long, you get the feeling, the All Blacks would find a way of winning after 59 minutes.
 
On Saturday the world number one and current World Champions rolled into Cardiff like a black hulking beast. The alpha male among rugby giants; often challenged, rarely beaten and yet to be overthrown.
 
For Wales it was the story were are all fed up of hearing and tired of telling; another game against one of the Southern Hemisphere’s big three and another lead slips from their grasp at the death. To quote Bill Murray, “It’s Groundhog Day…again.”
 
 
For 67 minutes Wales were every bit as good as their counter parts, at times they were better. The blitz defence worked as well as it ever has; Alun Wyn Jones played the spot-blitz like an experienced outside centre and Jamie Roberts led the way in stifling Sonny Bill Williams.
 
Sonny Bill is one of rugby’s most creative centres with the ability to unlock the tightest of defence, but Wales smothered him to cut off the oxygen to All Blacks attack. Jake Ball and Dan Biggar completed 12 tackles each – an incredible figure for a second row and outside half – and Roberts himself made ten.  It seemed Wales’ defence may have been enough to secure an historic win for the first time in over half a century.
 
However, it was to be a death by a thousand cuts. Wales made 121 tackles; few of them without bruising ferocity and each chipping away at the body. Meanwhile, New Zealand carried for 495m; almost enough to go tryline to tryline five times. Whilst most of the metres made never threatened to lead to tries, each tackle sapped more energy and every linebreak meant extra metres to compete at the ruck through the gate.
 
 
Slowly but surely Wales were emptying the tank. By the time the last quarter of an hour rolled around Wales were running on empty. Out on their feet. Having restricted New Zealand to a single try for the majority of the game, the flood gates opened with 12 minutes remaining on the Millennium Stadium clock with the All Blacks ran in four more. It was the toll of the effort Wales had put in told.
 
Wales had exhausted themselves in their exertions, whilst New Zealand had managed the game to perfection. It wasn’t just the possession that wore Wales down, but also the territory – the All Blacks owning 55% of each. New Zealand didn’t just play rugby, they played it in the right areas and gave Wales little scope for errors. They returned kicks in numbers and when they kicked, they did so to compete forcing Wales to play where they didn’t want to and under pressure they could have done without.
 
The large difference between points on the scoreboard betrayed the parity Wales enjoyed on the pitch for much of Saturday evening before aching muscles and bones slowed the Welsh defence.
 
 
Part of the problem wasn’t just the broken bodies that remained on the field, it was the ones that replaced them. Whilst New Zealand’s subs hit the ground running, those of Wales stumbled and couldn’t keep pace.
 
After coming off the bench Scott Baldwin overthrew at the lineout, James Hook put the ball out on the full from kick off with his very first touch and Mike Phillips was charged down by Kieran Read after he dithered with a kick from the ruck. It was a stark contract to Rhys Webb and Dan Biggar, both of whom had controlled the game for Wales when on the field.
 
Not that those in the starting XV were without blame for the defeat. George North barely got going. His one chance of glory was undone by an awkward bounce that just took the ball past his foot as he hacked at it with the try line waiting. Richard Hibbard’s tackling was as bone-crunchingly solid as you would expect, but his throwing struggled to reach his intended target.
 
 
One man who was in the spotlight was Leigh Halfpenny; Liam Williams’ rise in form is in correct correlation to Halfpenny’s decline. Halfpenny did little to invert this form. His success rate in the tackle was just 25% - making one of four – while his decision to pick and go from the base of a ruck 10 metres from his own line is far beyond comprehension.
 
Again Halfpenny’s saving grace was his flawless kicking, but with Biggar continuing to prove his ability from the kicking tee this is becoming less of a USP for the Gorseinon man.  Nobody could ever doubt Halfpenny’s commitment to his nation, but in the countdown to the World Cup he needs to rediscover the form and consistency that made him one of the first names on Gatland’s team sheet.
 
American football coach and human quote machine Vince Lomardi once said, “Winning is a habit. Unfortunately so is losing.” This country is in a bad habit when it comes playing the Southern Hemisphere’s big three at our national sport. We’ve become adept at losing our favourite game, it’s time to break the habit.
 

Friday, November 21, 2014

Haka: Respect It Please

It was November 2008 in Cardiff. Piri Weepu stalked between his fellow countrymen bellowing ferociously as they eyed their opponent. Twenty two players clad in red lined up across their 10 metre line, meeting the stares of the men the will soon do battle with.

The Haka finished with mighty roars; first from the All Blacks, then from the appreciative crowd. Referee Jonathan Kaplan wandered between the two teams in preparation for kick off, but a battle had already started.

Wales stood and stared, unflinching under the gaze of their enemy. The All Blacks stared back, Ma’a Nonu standing like a bull ready to charge the red before him. Kaplan was in no man’s land, trapped between two armies ready for war.
 
 
Suddenly, everything was raised; the crowd, the noise, the tension, the hairs on the back of the neck. The picture was barely believable. For a week the talk had been about a Welsh response to the Maori dance, but there was no response and it was the best response of all. It was a staring contest and nobody wanted to blink first.

The 'stare down' lasted only a little over a minute, but it felt like forever in the giddy excitement and anticipation of what might happen. Kaplan wandered captain to captain pleading, demanding and threatening. Ryan Jones remained defiant - “we aren’t moving until they do.”

He revealed to Wales Online - in a
fantastic article by Gareth Griffiths - that in the build up the game Warren Gatland had explained the importance and traditions of the Haka. The Kiwi coach of Wales had stated the Haka isn't over until the opponents turn away. With that in mind Wales decided that, whilst Australia had turned their back on the Haka, they would refuse to turn their backs to it even after it was complete. Jones said, “we were adamant we weren’t going to move first. The Millennium Stadium was our home patch and we would not budge.”
 
 
New Zealand blinked first. Some players wheeled away toward their positions and, as Ryan Jones puts it, Wales “had won the Haka.”

It is fitting that such a memorable response is completed at the venue of one of the most influential Haka responses. Over a century before the stare down, New Zealand had brought the Haka to Cardiff for the first time. It was the first touring All Blacks team, now nicknamed ‘The Originals.’ New Zealand performed the Haka to a packed out National Stadium before Welsh player Teddy Morgan led the crowd in a rousing rendition of Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau in response. It would lead to national anthems being sung in future sporting events.

It was some time later in 1987, and under "Buck" Shelford's suggestion, that New Zealand would begin to practice the Haka and perform it on home soil. It transformed into an entirely different beast, one that embodied the passion and tradition of New Zealand as well as their incredible teamwork.

Some see that exhibition of athleticism and passion in unity as little more than an exercise in intimidation. Ex-England hooker Brian Moore is not one to mince his words. When talking about this apparent intimidation to his England teammates he said, "if anyone was truly intimidated by the haka they shouldn’t be on the field in the first place."
 
 
Will Greenwood says teams should take the energy created by the Haka "absorb it, internalise it and ultimately turn" it against them. Just as the controversial 'throat slitting' action of was to draw power from the sky, opponents should draw power from the confrontation.  Adrenaline is the 'fight or flight hormone' and when the blood rushes in the face of a raging opponent, no international sportsman should choose flight. If you let the All Blacks get a psychological advantage from it, then you have no business playing international rugby.

When asked how the Haka affected him, Moore tweeted "How did I feel facing the Haka? Like a wanted to kill someone. (Metaphorically of course)." Shelford is keen to point out that while the All Blacks are perceived to have the psychological advantage due to the Haka, it's their ability after the ref's whistle that sets them apart. He says, "the haka doesn't win us a game of rugby. Rugby wins rugby."

That didn't stop Ireland's Willie Armstrong trying to give the apple cart a good shake in 1989. The Irish players linked arms to face the Haka before Willie Anderson dragged them forward leading his troops into the faces of the All Blacks. Anderson finished nose-to-nose with Shelford and when the Kiwi turned away he called on the Dublin crowd to celebrate.

Despite all the talk of over sensitivity toward Haka responses both Shelford and Anderson say the Irish actions were treated with nothing but praise. Anderson told the New Zealand Herald, "(Shelford's) view was that they threw the gauntlet down and we picked it up."


Perhaps the most controversial response was current Leicester Tigers coach Richard Cockerill. In 1997 Cockerill was due to make his first start for England. It was as big as they come, the All Blacks at Twickenham. During the Haka, Cockerill had a rush of blood to the head. While his teammates watched he got in the face of opponent Norm Hewitt. Cockerill was largely lambasted for his actions and many claimed it was disrespectful. However, he maintains that the All Blacks  he spoke to after the game "loved it" and that passion and confrontation is part of their rugby culture.

In fact, responses to the Haka have generally been well received by New Zealand's finest. Ryan Jones says the 'Stare Off' was so well respected, New Zealand TV channels were still showing it 3 years later during the World Cup.

At the final of that World Cup France encroached beyond their given point and were slapped with a fine. It's worth remembering any fines are the decision of the IRB not the All Blacks. After France were sanctioned, New Zealand's team manager Darren Shand spoke out against the decision. There are 39 million sheep in New Zealand, but the bleating about the Haka tends to come from elsewhere.

Whether you love it or hate, when Wales face the Haka on Saturday, respect it. Give it the time and attention it deserves. The only response that matters though is the one between the first whistle and the last.
 
AC/DC - Back in Black

Monday, November 17, 2014

Doom and Gloom

“You're playing and you think everything is going fine. Then one thing goes wrong. And then another. And another. You try to fight back, but the harder you fight, the deeper you sink. Until you can't move... you can't breathe... because you're in over your head. Like quicksand.” – Shane Falco
 
In American football comedy 'The Replacements,' whilst players discuss their fears quarterback Shane Falco states his fear is quicksand. It’s a metaphor for those games where a single error rapidly descends into a torrid struggle. After 20 minutes on Saturday, despite the £3.3m redevelopment of the Millennium Stadium turf, Wales ran into quicksand.
 
Up to the twentieth minute Wales were cantering along with solid footing. Rhys Priestland and Jamie Roberts were linking well, whilst Scott Williams outmanoeuvred Fijian defenders with intelligent dummy runs. Wales scored an early try with a move that looked like a run out at the training paddock.
 
Priestland spent much of the week as the focus of media headlines and radio debates. A 'confidence player' stripped of any self assurance by overexposure and jeering buffoons; he entered the fray with such weight on his shoulders, only Atlas could sympathise. When the ball squirmed from his grasp like a goldfish from the paws of a hungry cat, it would have been easy to let the quicksand envelop him. Instead, Priestland fought back with intelligent rugby; a switch in play set up an Alex Cuthbert try and some excellent kicks from hand, gave Wales territory.
 
 
Wales did nothing with their territory, giving away the gift of possession like over exuberant workers in Santa’s Grotto. The usually reliable pair of Jamie Roberts and Taulupe Faletau continually coughed up possession. Scott Baldwin saw throws drift away from being straight and when the ball bounced off Gethin Jenkins’ infamous melon we knew it was one of those days.
 
Before the game, the players would have known about how Fiji tackle. Like most Pacific Island teams, Fiji go high and go hard. They thunder into the upper body to take man and ball. Fiji legend Nicky Little offered some insight into the technique to Radio Wales presenter Chris “Korky” Corcoran. “The ground in Fiji is hard,” he said, “You go low, you get dragged 20 metres and you cut your legs.”
 
Even on the green, green grass/fibre mixture the Fijians tackle above the waist and Wales couldn’t have made it easier for them; carrying into contact with ball exposed up high and the carrier standing tall and straight. The ball continually dislodged and any chance of building momentum tumbled away with it as Wales became sloppy and loose, offering up more turnovers than a fruit filled pastry special of The Great British Bake Off.
 
 
Fiji’s lack of discipline led to a penalty try and then their reduction to 14 men. Wales played within the laws of the game, but their positional discipline left a lot to be desired. The backs drifted together and apart like boats in a stormy dock, while forwards found themselves caught in the attacking line to butcher burgeoning attacks.
 
It wasn’t just the players that managed to ruin a good Saturday out. I am a firm believer in the use of video technology in rugby and feel that many people’s criticism of the use of the TMO are uncalled for. However, it was difficult to be anything but frustrated by the over reliance on the television on Saturday; Referee Pascal Gauzere watched more of the game on the television than the people tuned into BBC1 Wales. It was unclear whether the Italian TMO Carlo Damasco was even watching the game at all. He offered such little input into the video decisions ,the suspicion was he had grown bored of the game and decided to turn over to watch England play the Springboks instead. Still, for all the referrals ‘upstairs’ and all the pondering from every possible angle, they had about as much right as Joey Essex on University Challenge.
 
So, the descent into the quicksand continued. The game stuttered more than Ronnie Barker in 'Open All Hours' and, before the hour mark had rolled around, the atmosphere had petered out. Those in the stands were doomed to an afternoon of Mexican waves and vuvuzelas.
 
 
For Wales everyone offered the same answer: James Hook. It seems the answer to playing too loose was to play looser. The truth is it wouldn't have mattered; if you put a Kia Picanto in a Grand Prix it doesn't matter who's driving. To think Hook could have magically turned the game falls somewhere between naive hope and sheer desperation akin to that of some 15-20 years ago. Let's remember what we learned all those years ago: There is no single saviour of Welsh rugby.
 
There was at least a shining star on Saturday in Scarlets fullback Liam Williams. Once again he showed the total commitment, determination and attacking endeavour he has become renowned for. The two games he has started in his preferred position of fullback have returned man of the match performances. The stats from Saturday's game make it easy to see why. Williams had 20 runs for a 224 metre gain, beating 11 defenders on his way. His attacking was as relentless as it was successful. Of the 32 times he had the ball in hand, he kicked only five.
 
What Williams offered though can't be captured in statistics. In defence his iron determination saw him snuff out a Fiji two-on-one only to track the width of the field to thwart another overlap. If Halfpenny returns at his expense on Saturday, Williams will have every right to feel aggrieved.
 
 
Few of the other eighteen players who played for Wales on Saturday will be able to make such a claim, but those talking of the delights of the rugby in this fixture in the past may need to revisit them. Since the first capped fixture in 1985, the games have done little to stir the imagination outside the spectacle of the World Cup. Wales ran rampant in Hamilton three years ago and Fiji's shock upset in Nantes is without doubt the most entertaining meeting between the teams.
 
Most games, however, fail to even rise to levels of mediocrity. Two large Welsh victories 17 years apart stand out from games that were ordinary at best. Saturday's game was poor by the standards of any top tier nation, but not a massive amount worse than a usual performance of a Fiji game. It wasn't the worst Wales-Fiji in memory either. That dubious award goes to Wales' 11-10 victory in 2005 - where real loser weren't Fiji, it was the paying public and the game of rugby itself.
 
Let's not get too carried away or read too much into the game, however. Lets not get bogged down in doom and gloom. In November 2010, Wales scrapped to a 16-16 draw with Fiji - their sixth game without a win - one week before going into a defeat to the All Blacks. Less than a year later Wales scored nine unanswered tries to beat Fiji 66-0 at a World Cup they probably should have won. So let's not judge just yet.
 
***This video may not appear for some smartphone users. To watch, press the title to open in a new window in your browser.***

Saturday, November 15, 2014

A Little Respect

 Throughout December and January, Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas will be starring as Dandini in the pantomime ‘Cinderella’ at the New Theatre in Cardiff. The show is great fun for families looking to spend some time together over the Christmas period.

Meanwhile, over the three coming weekends at the Millennium Stadium, the Autumn Internationals continue. Fiji, the All Blacks and the Springboks still await Wales in what should be a tense, exciting and hopeful time for rugby fans.

Now you are aware of both, please chose which you would like to attend and adjust your attitude accordingly. Just as I’m sure the cast at the New Theatre would not be happy if the audience spontaneously burst into a few verses of Calon Lan mid performance; jeering players like the appearance of a panto villain should not be tolerated in the stadium.



On Saturday Welsh fans first booed the Australian kicker Bernard Foley, out of frustration at referee Craig Joubert and his seemingly eternal advantage than anything else. It by no means exonerates their actions, but it’s not quite a hanging offence. They are unfortunately not the first; they certainly won’t be the last.

What followed was far worse. With Dan Biggar injured, Scarlets outside half Rhys Priestland took to the field to audible condemnation from the ‘fans.’ It was very much a minority that took part in the brainless booing of their own player, but any is too many. Priestland’s only crime to incite such a reaction is a few below average test matches.

Priestland, we are continually told, is a confidence player. He thrives on confidence peaks, but struggles with the troughs. For Wales he is trying to regain that form which saw him steer Wales to the World Cup semi final, but it’s hard playing with a monkey on your back; it’s harder when there a handful of people on there behaving like primates.


 

However, the behaviour exhibited in Cardiff was nothing compared to that documented in Twickenham. Whilst the booing of the kicker was also evident and some fans booed the Haka, there was an all together more unsavoury moment that was brought to people’s attention.

On Tuesday The Guardian published a letter from Keith Wilson of South Yorkshire. Mr Wilson, life long rugby fan in his sixties, complained of the “nasty, foul-mouthed, racist, homophobic abuse” aimed at Nigel Owen by drunken “louts.”

As a result of Mr Wilson’s letter the RFU have launched an investigation into the matter. Some have suggested there is no place for such actions in rugby, but the truth is, there is no place for such actions in society as a whole.


Rugby is a game built on respect. Few sports can claim the same levels respect afforded to officials, players and all connected to the game. Lately, there have been increasing signs of erosion in this ideal and this incident at Twickenham is far beyond anything acceptable.

Various theories have been thrown around as to why occurrences have begun to seep into a game that was once proudly free of them. Some say it’s the accessibility the game no has, whilst others suggest it’s the promise of the impending World Cup enticing new, uninitiated fans. Whatever the reason, the unions must do all they can to prevent this culture bedding in to rugby and keep the spirit of the game alive.

Rugby is a game for all. Traditionally that means people of all builds and abilities, but now we must take that one step further. Modern rugby is a game for people of all races, nationalities, backgrounds, genders and sexualities. All should be allow to play it, officiate or observe without being booed and jeered be imbeciles. Time again for everyone to start showing little respect.

Aretha Franklin - Respect

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Reasons to Be Cheerful

Since Craig Joubert blew his whistle to bring Saturday’s spectacle to a close, everybody has taken to dissecting every facet of the game in a bid to make more sense of it. Wielding pens like scalpels and using stats as weighing scales, the post-mortem of another Welsh defeat to Australia began.
 
Some fingers have pointed in the usual directions and echoed the same lazy excuses that have become as tiresome as late defeats to the Wallabies. However, the truth is, this game was different in many aspects and perhaps the most positive so far.
 
 
With 10 months to go until the Rugby World Cup starts in England, it was evident that Gatland isn’t going to rest on his laurels. Wales differed slightly from the tactics they usually implement rigidly, looking at times to offload in contact rather than simply stick the ball up the jumper. Wales showed early signs of the fabled “Plan B” rich in Super Rugby influence and it looked good, if not a little undercooked. By this time next year, with a little fine tuning, we may be lauding it.
 
Ironically, Australia’s winning kicks came as a result of a style very similar to the much maligned “Warrenball” as they crept ever closer and unrelenting towards the posts like a mummy in a Hammer horror.
 
Much has been made of Jamie Roberts’ role in that playing style in the past. A perception has been built that Roberts was something of a one trick pit pony, useful for the crash ball and little else. Where once Roberts was hailed as Wales’ best centre and a Lions’ hero, recently he has been accused of stifling the Welsh attack. At the Scarlets, Scott Williams has proved himself to be a more rounded centre and his try against England has already earned him cult hero status. Roberts needed to show his ability. On Saturday he again proved himself more than capable of competing with the World’s best; he  shattered the gainline in attack with some impressive carries and was airtight in defence. His twelve tackles smothered the usually potent Christian Leali’ifano. It will be great to see him and Williams together against Fiji on Saturday.
 
 
Roberts’ old Blues teammate Leigh Halfpenny also responded to some critics. Previously Halfpenny has seemed reluctant to join the Welsh attacking line; sitting back as though attached to the posts by bungee rope. However, during his limited time against Australia, Halfpenny showed more attacking intent. He offered another option outside the centres and an early involvement led to Wales racking up their first seven points. Now the biggest question over Halfpenny is his body position as he again left the field with a possible concussion.
 
At the set piece, Wales looked stronger than ever. There’s been a lot of talk about the Australia scrum since they packed down against Argentina and the Pumas gave the Wallabies a mauling. Since then the Australian scrum has improved and, though not superb, it shouldn’t be underestimated. On Saturday, Samson Lee and co gave Australia a lesson in the dark arts. The penalty try that eventually came could have been given even earlier, but that wasn’t the only set piece that went well. Wales looked solid at the lineout where they often look weak. Hibbard linked brilliantly with his jumpers to create clean, crisp possession for them to play with. If Wales stick with Webb – which they should – fast ball could prove devastating to opposition.
 
 
Warburton was fantastic all over the park, the captain leading by example. He fought for the ball at the breakdown like a wild dog scrapping for meat. With ball in hand he carried superbly and created Webb’s opener with a 30 metre break after Halfpenny and Dan Biggar had linked well. Even at the lineout, Warburton towered above those around, both literally and figuratively. Captain Sam was a definite man of the match contender to silence those who have questioned his worth.
 
On the opposite flank, Dan Lydiate answered all questions of his fitness and form. Starved of starts and playing time in France, Lydiate showed no signs of ring rust as he tackled relentlessly and kept Justin Tipuric on the bench for 75 minutes. Lydiate is due to return to Welsh shores after these test and regular rugby should only enhance his prowess.
 
 
At halfback, Webb and Biggar showed guile and creativity, playing at pace to create gaps in the Australian defence. Despite throwing the interception pass, Webb should take heart from the performance. The edge he has given to the team is similar to that Danny Care has provided for England. There can be no doubting Mike Phillips ability - one does not play at the levels he has with good looks and cocksure attitude alone - but his service is somewhat slow when compared to players such as Webb. 
 
Wales defence was pretty solid, with an impressive tackle completion rate of 91%. Unfortunately, included in the 9% of missed tackles were two that directly led to tries. Such errors are exceptions in a defence that usually gives little away and over the next year that barrier will strengthen.
 
So, while we will all feel like wallowing in yet another late Australia defeat, there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful.
 
  ***This video may not appear for some smartphone users. To watch, press the title to open in a new window in your browser.***

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Why Wales is Better than Australia

It’s almost time for Wales and Australia to kick off in Cardiff in what’s being billed as Welsh rugby’s most important game since the last World Cup. The game is on a knife’s edge with either team having the ability to win or lose the game.
 
Just to alleviate Welsh nerves, here are a few things that we already do better than the Aussies.
 
National Animals
It really is a simple one, what would you rather stare down; 15 marauding, fire breathing dragons or Skippy’s little cousins? There are no age old stories about brave warriors going to battle against fearsome, deadly wallabies.
 
Alcoholic Beverages
The smoothest nectar of Brains against the blue canned kangaroo urine of Foster’s; there can only be one winner and it’s brewed in Cardiff.
 
Heroes
If you're in trouble and need rescuing a clicky-jawed marsupial is not as well equipped to help you as a friendly alien with a jet pack, rocket and the ability to bring a superhero bear with rocket boots to life. Yes he’s a bit bumbling, but he also used to be Doctor Who.
 
Streets
It doesn’t matter whether you call it Chippy Lane or Chip Alley, the famous (if not infamous) Caroline Street is the place to be after an international. To the untrained eye it’s a dirty street of drunk people eating takeaway, but we know we’re just carb loading in preparation of next week’s game. What can Australia offer in return? Ramsey Street? Rumour has it Lou’s Place doesn’t even do cheesy chips.
 
Songs
We’ll never understand why the Australians feel the need to sing Waltzing Matilda at sporting events, we just about understand what the song is about (unless you take Adam Hills’ version). Hymns and Arias meanwhile is about rugby, drinking, playing cards and beating the English; who doesn’t understand that.
 
Dames
Yes, even our dames are better. We’re not saying Dame Edna is bad, not at all. Answer us this though; How many Bond soundtracks has she appeared on? We rest our case.


 
Pint-sized Pop Princesses
“Kylie!” Australians will say in the hope of clawing back a little pride, but everyone knows she’s a Maesteg girl really.
 
So there we have it, a unanimous victory for Wales, lets all hope for the same result on Saturday with a few pints of SA and chips from Dorothy’s.
 
The next four weeks could be vital to boost confidence to all nations ahead of the World Cup next year, but before all that it should be fantastic entertainment and the party is just getting started.
 
Shirley Bassey - Get the Party Started

Made of More

 *These video may not appear for some smartphone users. To watch, press the title of each to open them in a new window in your browser.

In recent years Guinness and rugby have become synonymous. From the sponsoring of events and leagues, to pop up tents selling the black stuff outside stadiums. Our game has even started to spill over into their advertising campaigns.
 
 
Now, ahead of the autumn internationals, Guinness have produced four 75 second long adverts telling some of the greatest rugby tales of each of the home nations in their Made of More campaign.
 
For Scotland it's the tale of the late, great Bill McLaren in The Irrepressible Spirit. The advert plays more like miniature documentary detailing McLaren's heart breaking news of illness before he was due to take his bow for Scotland and how it led to him becoming rugby's most recognisable voice.
 
Strangely, most of England's advert is spent abroad in the sunnier climbs of the South of France and is called Merci. The whole advert is incredibly Gallic, winding it's way amongst boules, berets and Bernard Laporte; it is a flurry of red and black without a glimpse of a white jersey or red rose. It is of course a tribute to one of England's finest, Johnny Wilkinson. The problem is it feels more like an advert for Toulon fans than an English ones.
 
Guinness have moved into provincial rugby for the advert of their homeland. David and Goliath is the fantastic tale of the Munster team who beat the All Blacks on Halloween 1978. Thormond Park was full to bursting; the victory in Limerick lifted not just the 12,000 the ground held, but the whole nation at a time when it was badly needed. That day, more than any other, the Munstermen were heroes and the advert captures that perfectly. Munster walked away 12-0 victors and New Zealand winger Stu Wilson said, "We were lucky to get nil." 
 
Last, but by no means least is Wales and who better to focus on than the nation's all time leading try scorer, Shane Williams. Mind Over Matter tells the story most of us will know, the rise of Shane from being "too small to play rugby" to the third highest international try scorer in the entire history of the game. Guinness tell the story against the backdrop of Shane's final Welsh cap against Australia. The clips, the commentary, the voice over; as a package the advert is enough to induce goosebumps to both fanatical rugby fans and part time supporters alike. Shane is loved by the Welsh public and Guinness play it perfectly to get us reminiscing again.
 
Hats off to Guinness, these adverts play out more like trailers for documentaries and if you weren't ready for the Autumn Internationals before hand you should be after watching them.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Wales First Test Team: 5 Talking Points

Warren Gatland has named his team for the first test on Saturday against Australia, 16 months since Gatland's triumph in the third Lions test against the Wallabies. His selections for that test created quite a stir; this time it isn't so controversial, but it's still created some discussion. Here are the five main talking points.

Paul James
It looked like the time would never come for Paul James. Gethin Jenkins’ grip on the number one jersey was pretty strong and, it seemed, no matter how well James performed he couldn’t oust Melon from Gatland’s plans. 
However, in recent weeks, James has been even more impressive than previously and the Ospreys must been very excited about bringing Assey home next season. Jenkins’ supposed weaknesses at the scrum have been greatly exaggerated, but James strengths there every bit as good as suggested.
Gethin does offer more around the pitch than most props in the world, but James is more than able to compete around the park. Gatland will look to bully the Aussies up front and James is the man to do it, especially with Samson Lee propping up the other side.
 
George North
There are few players in the world like George North. Built like a second row with skills of a back and the pace of a winger; North will scare even the best of defences. He already has some fond memories of Australia games - not least throwing Israel Folau onto his shoulder like an old rug - and he's still only 22!
Saturday is a different test altogether for North, as he switches to outside centre. There is no questioning North's ball carrying abilities, but he has been prone to defensive lapses in the past. That's a big problem in the 13 jersey with Wales utilising the blitz defence. Outside centre is absolutely key in making the system work and North must be on top of his game in defence.
On the left wing, North isn't a lazy player and will come in field to look for work if teams stifle Wales. Gatland has to be sure that moving North further in field doesn't take away this opportunity if Australia put pressure on the Welsh backs. It's well documented how reluctant Halfpenny appears to be to join the line in attack, so North moving in field can't take away the one variant of a sometimes predictable offence. Fortunately, Cory Allen is available on the bench if things aren't going to plan.
 
Rhys Webb
Without doubt, Wales' in form scrum half. From the first week of the season it was clear that Rhys Webb and the Scarlets Gareth Davies would put pressure on Mike Phillips come international time. Injury took Davies out of the equation, but Webb hasn't let up. The pace Webb provides, coupled with his on field chemistry with Dan Biggar makes him virtually impossible to overlook.
 
Dan Lydiate
With Biggar firmly in control of the 10 jersey, this is perhaps the most hotly disputed position of all. Many want to see Justin Tipuric start in the back row and, with Lydiate struggling for game time with Racing Metro, it looked like this would be their chance to see Warburton and Tipuric in tandem once again. 
However, the Welsh coaching team love the chemistry and balance supplied by Warburton, Faletau and Lydiate. The trio have an almost telepathic link that played a huge part in Six Nations titles and a World Cup run into the last four. With Lydiate due back across the channel for good when these tests are over, this is likely to be the trio that will lead Wales into the World Cup.
 
Jake Ball
A much underrated player. Jake Ball hits rucks with such unrepentant force his middle name should be ‘Wrecking.’ Perhaps a little more raw and brutish than the other options to partner Alun Wyn in the boiler house, Ball is another sign of Gatland's whack 'em, smash 'em tactics when it comes to the forwards. Wales sometimes lack the raw aggression they need against bigger opponents and Ball has it in abundance. Fear the beard.
 
Gatland's plans aren't difficult to see and anyone hoping for an end to 'Warrenball' look set to be sorely disappointed. As Gatland as said previously, "you know what we are going to do, but can you stop us?" Saturday it won't be an easy task, but it's the men from the Land Down Under charged with doing it. Both teams desperately need a win, we'll have to wait until Saturday to see who comes away happiest.
 
Men at Work - Down Under